Hundreds of letters and photographs are missing from the National Archives and its regional offices, including one presidential library. Many are suspected stolen.
The extent of the losses is detailed in a series of reports from the organization's investigative office, but the value of the items is difficult to determine because that is largely measured by historic importance and rarity. The items include color photographs of Nancy Reagan and the king and queen of Jordan, letters from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and a stately portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At one time, three letters written during the Civil War by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were missing from the National Archives. Only one has been recovered.
The Archives' problem was reported yesterday by WTOP News, which used the Freedom of Information Act to retrieve investigation reports dating back to 2000. The Office of the Inspector General at the National Archives also provided the reports to The Washington Post.
The Archives, the country's official repository of documents from the Bill of Rights to presidential menus, has admitted that occasionally a document or painting disappears from its vast realm of irreplaceable official holdings. The Archives has no strict registration system for most of the 10 billion items held around the country. Thus it is not always obvious when materials have been lost, stolen or misplaced. Even in the investigative reports, some of the documents are simply listed as "missing."
One missing document is one too many, said Paul Brachfeld, the Archives inspector general. "Our documents are valuable," Brachfeld said.
The Archives is open to all visitors, those who want to find the military records of a relative who served in World War I or professional historians looking at the international treaties signed by U.S. presidents.
The disappearance of any material rattles the archivists and staff, said Susan Cooper, the spokeswoman for the Archives.
"Is there a problem? Yes, there is a problem. Is it pervasive? No," Cooper said. Given the volume of materials collected by the Archives, almost all are right where they are supposed to be, she said.
"The National Archives takes these incidents very seriously. . . . When employees learned of a theft by another employee, they were outraged," Cooper said.
In its most publicized case of theft, a cache of presidential pardons and other materials valued at $100,000 was stolen by Shawn P. Aubitz, an Archives employee for 16 years in Philadelphia. He was convicted and sentenced in July 2002 to 21 months in federal prison.
"The Archives has a zero tolerance toward that," Cooper said.
That incident led to an overhaul of security procedures, including installing cameras and recording equipment in the research rooms, background investigation of volunteers working with original records and artifacts, and the development of a pilot program with the University of Maryland on the feasibility of electronic tracking.
"There are some sound and strong measures that have been taken to address the internal problems," Brachfeld said. "But the potential for theft is there."